Land of the olive tree, olive growing is a thousand-year-old tradition in Provence and in the Alpilles…Surrounded by more than 350,000 olive trees, the Alpilles has a dozen oil mills where the exceptional flavour of the green or black fruit is revealed. An ancestral know-how that makes this nectar a product appreciated throughout the world. Here is your guide to the Alpilles Olive Oil: the Provencal Green Gold.
Here the olive tree is king. Rooted since the Phoenician conquests, centuries BC, the tree has forged the local identity and economy. To open the pages of the History of the Valley and immerse yourself in the soul of Provence, you have to climb to the heights of the rock of Les Baux-de-Provence. Clinging to the summit, the medieval village offers a breathtaking panorama of the Alpilles which have inspired so many artists. A postcard landscape bathed in sunshine and lulled by the chirping of cicadas in summer, with this special light on the fields of olive trees, the vines and the well-kept orchards, these mills which seem straight out of the tales of Alphonse Daudet. Here, the olive tree changes color according to the hours and the seasons, the gray-white reflections of the Alpilles mingle with the bright silver of its dazzling foliage.
These three villages vie for the title of “premier” olive oil of the valley of the Alpilles (which of course means the best in the world!) and each has an olive oil coopérative (miller) as well as several olive growers. The miller is the one who extracts the oil from the olives in his oil mill using different methods : the traditional system equipped with millstones and press and a more modern system of continuous chain. Olive growers are olive producers who use a processing company to obtain the oil from their olives.
There are subtle differences between the oils from these three villages, but they share a characteristic fruity delicacy.
The different blends of olive varieties give the oils their characteristic flavours created by the master blenders.
Salonenque gives the oil an unctuous quality. Grossane, a large fleshy olive, gives softness, while Béruguette or Aglandau bring pungency. Verdale is typical of the Bouches-du-Rhône department. Picholine, small and pointed, brings an intense fruitiness to the oil with a touch of bitterness.
Green fruitiness and black or ripe fruitiness are obtained with these same varieties of olive. The difference comes from the time the olives spend ripening between picking and crushing. Green fruitiness is obtained with olives picked in the morning and processed within 24 hours. Black or ripe fruitiness is obtained by keeping the olives for four or five days between picking and crushing.
In a typical green fruitiness, the oil has aromas of fresh hay, cut grass, apple, fresh hazelnuts, almonds, raw artichoke, tomato leaf with a touch of bitterness and pungency. In typical black or ripe fruitiness, the oil is characterised by aromas of oxidised olives, black olives, cocoa, truffle, mushroom, cooked artichoke, a sweet sensation with absence of bitterness and little or no pungency.
Used in food, pharmacopoeia and body care since Antiquity, olive oil has accompanied humanity and crossed civilizations. Over the centuries, the uses of this generous tree that is the olive tree have developed: to light up, to perfume, to disinfect, to sublimate the muscles of athletes, to sculpt the wood of sacred statues, to light the lamps of the altars in the churches… Introduced 600 BC on the Mediterranean coast by the Phocaeans who created Massilia (Marseille) and introduced the inhabitants to its culture, the olive tree gradually took hold there.
This is the beginning of a long story between the Valley of Baux-de-Provence and the olive tree.
In the Middle Ages, with the development of Christianity in Provence, the olive tree became the emblem of the Valley. Used in religious ceremonies, oil from local olives is occasionally used for self-defence, poured boiling from the ramparts of the citadel of Les Baux on the attackers. In 1786, Abbé Couture, in his “Treatise on the olive tree”, noted that one of the particularities of the Valley of Baux-de-Provence was its great wealth of olive varieties, and counted at least six main species. In the 18th century, real olive groves developed and olive oil became a commodity, enriching farmers and millers.
This economic expansion continued throughout Provence until the 20th century. But with the development of maritime trade, more and more seed oils, more exotic, less expensive and whose uses are being discovered, are imported. In 1914, the construction of the Vallée des Baux irrigation canal accelerated the expansion of market gardening. Finally, the consecutive frosts of 1929 and 1956 brought the olive world to a halt.
The winter of 1956 remains marked with a black stone in the local agricultural memory. After a particularly mild month of January, the month of February recorded down to -20°C! Unheard of in Provence. The tree supports a dry and short-lived cold, but not that, wet and of long duration, of this month of February. The olive trees are bursting under the effect of the frost, because the sap has started to rise. Few olive trees have been spared and two-thirds of the region’s olive groves are disappearing. But the tree has character and does not let itself be cut down. Thanks to the technique of coppicing (which consists of cutting the trunk 40 cm from the ground), it is reborn by itself by regenerating itself through suckers which grow at the base of the trunk to give a new tree. There are up to four trunks pushed back from the old stumps received during this devastating frost.
It will take the patience and passion of olive growers to bring the olive back to center stage and regain a share in the economy of the Valley, alongside vines and fruit trees (apricot, almond, cherry, etc.) with which it now shares space.
From the 1980s, thanks to the promotion of the Mediterranean diet and the support of the State and Europe, French olive growing finally recovered from the terrible frost of 1956.
It is in the heart of the Vallée des Baux-de-Provence that the Moulin has stood since 1685 and is one of the largest mills in France. It has everything to make people talk about it: attachment to the land, ancestral know-how, secrets of certified artisanal production and modern management. It offers a range of 7 multi-medal-winning olive oils, including the famous AOP Vallées des Baux de Provence – Matured Olives (Black Fruity). The mill is open for visits every day and all year long, but make sure to check their hours as they might differ depending on the season.
Perpetuating the ancestral know-how, the freshly picked olives of the region are crushed at the Mill to extract the olive oil of the Vallée des Baux Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). A golden coloured oil, with a great fruity taste.
On appointment: the mill proposes a private visit of the olive growing property and oil mill with various tastings where they share their passion, family anecdotes and traditions. In this privileged setting, a complete visit will be presented and commented by the owners. Visit of an olive orchard of the estate with explanations of the olive growing world followed by the visit of the mill with explanations of its functioning, tasting courses.
The Moulin Saint Michel has stood at the heart of Baux valley in Mouriès since 1744. Over three generations, the Rossi family developed a passion for this place, for its history and this noble profession.
In keeping with ancestral techniques, the olives are stored in the storehouses before being taken down to the heart of the mill to be stripped, washed and crushed. They carry out a first and the only cold extraction process to bring out the character of the olive oil, while preserving the identity of each variety, therefore producing high-quality oil that is classified as ‘extra virgin’.
They offer Guided tours during the summer: every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:30am, with olive oil tasting.
If you are interested in olive oil, its history, visiting growers and millers and of course indulge in some degustation while you are staying in the Alpilles, your local host will be happy to give you tips and suggestions to make the most of your visit. We do have amazing Villas and “Mas” luxury rentals in the region of the Alpilles, so these would be your perfect base to explore all the region has to offer. Cheers to the Green Gold of Provence!